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How could COVID-19 and NAU's fall semester impact the health and economy of Flagstaff?
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How could COVID-19 and NAU's fall semester impact the health and economy of Flagstaff?

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With less than two weeks before classes are expected to start, and only a month away from the beginning of in-person classes, uncertainty around the upcoming semester at Northern Arizona University still abounds.

In a city such as Flagstaff, what happens during the fall semester is likely to have huge ramifications for the community as a whole and that has local business leaders and politicians concerned.

A week ago, NAU President Rita Cheng pushed back the start of in-person classes to the end of August, and the university announced several policies to try to manage COVID-19 as school begins.

The university is requiring on-campus students traveling to Flagstaff for in-person classes to self-quarantine for at least 10 days and to be tested for the virus before moving in.

At the same time, university officials also sent guidance to department supervisors advising them not to inform employees if a co-worker begins showing symptoms or tests positive for the virus as to not cause panic.

The guidance instead states that information will be distributed by the county.

Normally, the beginning of classes would mean as many as 30,000 students coming into town. This year, however, it is not clear how the pandemic may have impacted enrollment.

While many schools across the county saw huge jumps in online classes over the summer, how that might translate into the fall semester is not known. Some experts are expecting enrollment across the country to be as much as 20% lower this year. NAU had already seen somewhat lower enrollment numbers last year, with university officials blaming most of that on a drop in international students.

Any drop in enrollment, or if in-person classes are again delayed, could cause havoc with the local economy, said President of the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce Julie Pastrick.

NAU and the students it brings to the community are “integral” to the city’s economy, Pastrick said.

“How they return their student to campus, and when, is of really grave concern," she said. "There’s just this sense that we could feel another economic downturn in our community if we have lower numbers of enrollment or without any students in town at all during the fall semester. Because of the fluidity of COVID, things change so rapidly from day to day yet all of us have become dependent on the semester starting. Everybody comes to town and our full population is here. This year we don’t know if our full population will be coming.”

Pastrick said Flagstaff could be particularly vulnerable to that kind of economic shock because of the size of the community relative to the university. If the University of Arizona or Arizona State University see lower enrollment, the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas are large enough that the impact to local businesses will be limited. But that may not be the case here in Flagstaff, Pastrick said.

To help deal with the issue, Pastrick said the chamber is organizing a task force to discuss the possible economic fallout, and potential solutions for businesses, of a low-enrollment semester.

That task force will include local business leaders-- as well as Cheng and President of Coconino Community College Colleen Smith. It may be able to find alternative ways of supporting the business sector through the pandemic both at the local level and through speaking with elected leaders, Pastrick said.

Health ramifications

COVID-19 case numbers in Coconino County and the state have been improving in recent weeks after an explosion of new cases forced the state to reevaluate its early re-opening.  After spiking at the end of June, the number of new cases has begun lowering through July and new case numbers have fallen the last three weeks.

Even so, some locally have worried that any influx of students could increase the spread of the virus in northern Arizona.

One of those concerned is Flagstaff Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni, who told the Arizona Daily Sun he would prefer to see in-person classes canceled for the semester.

Shimoni said he doesn’t know exactly how returning students will affect the outbreak, “but what we do know is that COVID is alive and well … and it’s not necessarily getting better.”

And Shimoni’s concerns may not be unfounded.

NAU’s Center for Health Equity Research is advising against reinstating in-person university operations prior to the spring 2021 semester.

Likewise, it appears there has already been some transmission of the virus among NAU students. This week, university officials told the Arizona Daily Sun that less than 3% of student athletes on campus currently have the virus.

When questioned about the virus by news outlets last week, Cheng appeared to downplay the risk it may pose to students, pointing out young people have tended to fair much better even when they have contracted COVID-19. Cheng suggested that because the virus doesn’t impact young people in the same way, even if students contract the virus they won’t have the same impact on local healthcare providers.

“I think we all recognize our students will have very few symptoms or no symptoms,” Cheng said. “Their demand for hospitalization in that age group is very, very low, so the hospital is not concerned about any burden on their resources.”

That doesn't mean they won't spread it to others in Flagstaff.

And as the semester begins, Cheng said it’s important to “manage our lives knowing COVID will be with us for a while.”

Cheng added that she and NAU administrators are in constant communication with local health officials and last month told the Faculty Senate that Flagstaff Medical Center is "100% behind NAU opening.”

That message was echoed by the CEO of Northern Arizona Healthcare Flo Spyrow, who told reporters she thought restarting in-person classes was the right decision.

Updated for corrections at 7:58 a.m. on August 2. 

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